Unfortunately, they also happen to be evangelicals.
So they are kind of like…ummmh… Evangelical Deists.
You know what a Deist is! A Deist is a person who believes in an Almighty (or thereabouts) Deity who created the world, created the operational principles of the world, set things in motion and then stepped back from day to day involvement in the world.
So a Deist is left with a creation that runs, more or less smoothly (with sin, it can be much less smoothly) according to principles. Learn the principles, follow the principles and things work out pretty well. Ignore or break the principles, then things go poorly. The old image of the Divine ClockMaker is used to illustrate this. The world principles operate much like a finely designed CLOCK works.
But when it comes to a sense of relational connectedness, personal experience, and real encounter with the ClockMaker -- sorry, it just isn't there. Just the "clock" and its principles of operation.
Before I answer that, I'll bring in another related idea provided by Parker Palmer in his little booklet, Leading From Within: Reflections on Spirituality and Leadership. Palmer talks about "functional atheism" by which he means, a "theist" who lives and acts as if God makes no real difference and that if anything good is going to happen, it will because the person works hard to make it happen.
There are a lot of evangelicals (and evangelical leaders in particular) who can talk a real good game about God, but when push comes to shove, they are really Evangelical Deists. They have great theological ideas, wonderful biblical insights and sound moral behavior… and that is about it.
When you start talking to them about a "felt Presence," a real and genuine "Encounter," and a lived "Experience" with Christ… you get a blank look. Because they don't have much of it. They have leaned how to live with really good biblical ideas that order and guide their lives. But not living with a Real, Loving Person with whom they feel connected.
They may talk about Jesus, but they mainly and merely are preoccupied with right beliefs about Jesus.
In fact, think how we even define THEISM AND ATHEISM?
A theist is one who believes in God and an atheist is one who does not believe in God.
I think these are very inadequate definitions.
A THEIST is one who is in relationship with God and an ATHEIST is one who is not in relationship with God. It is not only about belief systems (as important as these are)… it is about personal relationship. Evangelical Deists (i.e. Functional Atheists) have for the mainly reduced relationship to a matter of correct ideas about the Person. That is a tragically deficient view of relationship.
Philip Yancey tells us, it can be pretty hard being in relationship with the Invisible God and therefore (here is my extrapolation) it is a lot easier, especially for men, to connect with ideas and deeds. So we develop, invest in and argue about extensive theological systems . . . and we spend our lives doing good things…more programs, new ministries, great projects. We do it all in the name of Jesus… but we experience Christ in minimal ways.
No wonder so many leaders don't finish well, that some don't finish at all, and that so many evangelicals are slowly dropping out of the faith. They are dropping out of Evangelical Deism which has simply not satisfied the deepest need of the heart that longs for God.
Dallas Willard observes that you can be an evangelical in excellent standing and have little or no authentic encounter with Christ. As long as you have the T's of your theological system crossed and the I's of your biblical interpretation dotted, and are living a reasonably moral life - that is all you really need to have. YOU DON'T NEED TO HAVE ANY KIND OF CONSISTENT, POWERFUL, TRANSFORMATIVE RELATIONSHIP. YOU DON'T NEED TO HAVE AN EXPERIENCE/ENCOUNTER/FELT PRESENCE of Christ.
Erwin McManus wonders where is the manifest PRESENCE of GOD in our churches? He wonders that because, often (usually) it is not there. We settle for speaking truth and doing good… not in being friends, intimate with Christ.
We say we are following Jesus, but in reality, we are more like Deists who are following biblical principles and doing biblical deeds and not in much of a relationship with a PERSON named JESUS.
I wonder -- how long can we believe true ideas and do good -- if we constantly fall short in being in relational connectedness with Christ.
We just consistently settle for much less than the full depth and range of Christianity. And when life gets hard and we see our evangelical constituents around us wavering, then we give inadequate responses... usually telling them they need to be more grounded in IDEAS. And that is the problem that has led to the other problems. Too many Evangelical Deists are only grounded in ideas and not sustained by intimate relationship with Christ.
When the going gets tough, you need more than an idea to get you through. You need the Love of a Friend... not just the idea about the love of a Friend. You see how thorough and widespread is our Evangelical Deism. No wonder we slowly deteriorate into Evangelical Atheists (those who have ideas about God, but little relationship with Him).
I am intrigued with John 17:3. Now this is eternal life; that they may know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
Knowing God. This is not mere intellectual assent to proper ideas about God (vital but not sufficient). It is personal knowing of another. This word used here is ginoskoe (with both o's having the long o sound). That word is sometimes used as a euphemism for sexual intimacy.
I've been the Functional Evangelical Atheist for long parts of my church career. I've been the Evangelical Deist in good standing, but terribly empty. Now I am an Evangelical on the Ignatian Way of Proceeding, looking to daily encounter, experience, enjoy and love God. This is the stuff that then energizes and sustains my following and my missional service in the world. This is the biblical reality . . .
Without it . . .
In the next post, I'll pick up this theme and illustrate it by talking with you about some experiences I had as I walked through the Passion Story of the Third Week.
Brian K. Rice
Leadership ConneXtions International